Updated on 09/17/2011 10:53PM

Not quite ready for prime time

Del Mar's infield video board in 2004 (above), minus the drawing of a whale that was still visible Monday.

DEL MAR, Calif. - The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club opens its 66th season on Wednesday, with a rich new turf course and a sudden, somewhat surprising reputation as the solid, conservative citizen in the turbulent climate of California racetrack operation.

This is the same Del Mar that began life as a glorious ego trip for a pack of show biz insiders, led by Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien, who bailed out after less than 10 years. It's the same Del Mar that underwent no less than five major management changes in a 25-year period, between 1945 and 1970, earning the nickname "Capital Gains Downs" in the process.

The Del Mar of 40 years ago was barely a blip on the national radar. Major stables and big-time riders headed East after the Hollywood Park meet to Arlington Park or Saratoga, where the real prize money lived, rather than scramble for Del Mar's distribution of about $33,000 a day.

Attendance figures were small time as well. The average turnout for the 42-day Del Mar season of 1965 was 11,435, a respectable figure by contemporary standards, but barely a third of the numbers posted back then by Aqueduct, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park. Eastern and Midwestern tracks with bigger crowds than Del Mar included Ak-Sar-Ben, Hazel Park, Atlantic City, and Suffolk Downs, which would not have been so hard to swallow except for the fact that Del Mar also was being outdrawn by the Pomona Fair and Agua Caliente, just across the Mexican border.

For the last 25 years, the DMTC has held the operating lease, restoring a measure of stability to the management side of the equation. Still, Del Mar was usually considered the goofy uncle with the beach house, an unapologetic surfer dude who refused to act his age.

That began to change with the advent of the $1 million Pacific Classic in 1990, the completion of a new grandstand in 1993, and the aggressive marketing of a simulcast signal that handled an average of $10.5 million a day during the 2004 meet. With the future of recently sold Hollywood Park in doubt, coupled with the bleeding-red ledger of the Magna regime at Santa Anita and a Los Alamitos Thoroughbred proposal in the air, Del Mar finds itself in a position to spread its wings into a longer meet, a split season, or some variation on the expansion theme.

Such issues weigh heavily on the mind of Del Mar president Joe Harper, whose community presence and longtime resident status has helped give his track the feel of a locally owned and operated business. Unfortunately for Harper, the big picture has to wait while he concerns himself with the devilish details of opening a racing meet after 45 weeks of relative inactivity.

"I would feel a lot better if more than two of our 20 elevators worked," Harper said Monday morning as the clocked ticked toward the magic hour of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, when the grandstand gates would be opened to Del Mar's frenzied, opening-day crowd.

As he spoke, Harper was standing in one of the backstretch guinea stands, gazing off in the general direction of the quarter pole, where the latest in the usual series of niggling problems had occurred. Just moments earlier, during the final surface renovation of the morning, a tractor driver had veered off line and crashed through five support poles on the inside rail of the main track. According to one observer, pieces of the protective plastic cover were "flying around like shrapnel" before the driver could correct his course. The estimate for repair was three hours.

"I guess it could have been worse," Harper said with a sigh. "It could have happened before the first race opening day, or he could have gone right through the rail and torn up a section of the new turf course, or headed through the infield, or . . . I've got to stop thinking about it."

Believe it or not, there were trainers who wanted to go ahead and exercise horses anyway, bless their single-minded souls. Then there were those like Chris Paasch, who improvised by taking his last horse of the morning to the amphitheater paddock for a brisk round-and-round over the wood chip oval of the walking ring. Where there's a will . . .

"Have you seen the whale?" Harper added, trying to forget about the rail for a moment. "Yes, we now have a whale, painted by a guy during the fair. You've got to really hunt for it. He only put it where everybody looks."

Whales, it should be noted, are not part of the DMTC logo. But there it was, large as life, "swimming" right through the giant infield video board, pretty much where everybody looks.

Such leftover souvenirs from the Del Mar Fair are not unusual (just not so large) and part of the price the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club pays as leaseholders. Despite its successful business profile and growing reputation, the racetrack is not entirely master of its own destiny.

But compared to damaged rails and flaky elevators, a piece of aquatic grafitti can wait in line. As Harper noted, "We might just have to go with it. I hope we have a whale of a meet. I just wish it didn't rhyme with rail."